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Religion Library: Taoism


Written by: Julia Hardy

Sometime around the 3rd or 4th centuries B.C.E., some writings of unknown origin were collected to form what is now known as the Taode jing (Tao Te Ching), a book about Tao (the way) and de (virtue, or charisma).  The Taode jing is a compilation of several hundred years of writing, and also includes some aphorisms that may have been much older. 

Around the late 3rd century B.C.E., some began to attribute the authorship of the Taode jing to an individual called Laozi.  Unlike the other participants in the "hundred schools" debates, there is no evidence that Laozi was a historical figure.  The name Laozi means, literally Old Child, or Old Teacher.  Some scholars surmise that the association of the name Laozi with the text was intended to indicate that it was an expression of ancient ideas or ancient wisdom.  Soon Laozi's historicity was accepted, and his biography was included in Sima Qian's famous 1st century B.C.E. collection of historical records.

The Taode jing has a different form than most of the writings of the "hundred schools," which are typically composed of passages, short or long, that open with a phrase such as "Confucius said" or "Mozi said."  The contents may be short didactic sayings, or they may be stories about conversations between a teacher and his students or between the teacher and an opponent who represents a different opinion.  In contrast, the Taode jing takes the form of poetry, and mentions no names.  It is composed of 81 chapters, each no more than a page in length; some verses are only six to eight lines long. 

Another individual who wrote about the way, or Tao, was Zhuang Zhou (4th century B.C.E.), also known as Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu).  Zhuang Zhou was an historical figure, but little is known about him, and while he may have written parts of the book that bears his name, other sections are obviously later additions.  The book in its current form was not compiled until 300 C.E.

The book called Zhuangzi was quite unusual for its time.  Containing some stories and some didactic passages, its tone is often witty and humorous.  At times historical persons are mentioned; at other times the stories feature characters with names like No-Toes or Woman Crookback.  Greater and lesser deities are also featured, as well as mythical creatures, and talking animals and insects — all engaging in a discourse about Tao.

In addition to being an important text in its own right, the Zhuangzi provides further clues about the debates about the Tao.   Confucius appears often in the texts, as does his star pupil Yen Hui; usually they take the role of individuals whose Tao is inadequate and wrong-headed.  Lao Dan, another name for Laozi, also appears, but is not central to the text.  Zhuang Zhou is the main voice of the text, and his Tao has some similarities to that of the Taode jing, but also many differences.  Concerning the topic of leadership, for example, the Taode jing advocated a laissez-faire style — doing by not-doing — while the Zhuangzi discouraged taking up official positions altogether. 

While many in the West think of the Taode jing and Zhuangzi as the sacred texts of Taoism, or at least as the texts with which Taoism began, it would be many centuries before Taoism as an organized religious tradition emerged and when it did, it would be based on new texts, the first of which were "received" from a deified Laozi.

Study Questions:
1.     What can you say about the relationship between the rise of Taoist thought and political developments of the time?
2.     What was the role of religion in politics throughout the rise of Taoism?
3.     Compare and contrast the authorship and teachings of the Taode jing with the Zhuangzi. Should either be referred to as a sacred text of Taoism?


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